'Brain Games': Jason Silva takes viewers on strange trip

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If you like to play along with game shows and fancy yourself observant, National Geographic Channel's "Brain Games" is tremendous fun.

Hosted by self-described wonder junkie Jason Silva, the series launching Monday, April 22, delves into what it means to think and how our brains are conditioned. Though this sounds like an arcane subject, it's very accessible, and there's nothing stuffy about the show.

Rather, Silva, a fast-talking guru of the digital age who defines earnest, tells Zap2it, "One of my main things is to get people to think exponentially."

He's completely plugged into technology and marvels at how much more democratic information is today -- provided people have access to technology.

"A young person in Africa has better communication technology than the president did 25 years ago," Silva says. "How does this change our world? It means we don't have to wait 300 years for the impossible to seem possible."

Silva gives talks around the world, spreading his gospel of how technology is changing thinking.

"We are moving into a world where our brains are being vastly augmented," he says. "We are outsourcing our cognition with external hard drives."

If this sounds a little amorphous and circuitous, well, it is. But Silva is so enthusiastic, so hopeful about sharing knowledge that it's best to try to not follow him as one would a linear speaker. Instead, just watch him and get caught up in the moment.

"A key idea I hope to focus on is our brain," he says. "Our brain evolved in a world that was linear and local. It could calculate how far that cheetah was before it ate us. Our linear, logical models for memory change to measure our world."

Now most people don't need to figure out how long before a wild animal pounces, which Silva says, "don't fit with the realities of exponential change.

This is why we are living in the age of disruption. So what do we need to do? Obviously disruption feels like a threat to the status quo. We are used to changing generation to generation, not go to college and come out obsolete. Disruption is an opportunity to present what is possible for us."

"Brain Games," which grew from a three-hour special in 2011, also features Apollo Robbins, billed as "the gentleman thief." While Silva walks viewers through experiments designed to make you question your perception of reality, Robbins' legerdemain is mind-blowing.

Robbins is a keen student of human behavior, whose expertise is in attention and awareness. He picked the pockets of tens of thousands of people over the years in his Las Vegas act. He's so adept that even when someone knows he is going to lift a watch from a wrist, it is nearly impossible to catch him.

On a stormy day several months ago in Long Island City, N.Y., a large soundstage is bare except for 13 large wooden crates. The lanky Silva crouches inside one.

Robbins asks crew members to smash three crates with sledgehammers. Silva, naturally, emerges unscathed.

We won't divulge which crate Silva was hiding in, but it is safe to say that we played along silently on set, picking the numbered crates and reassessing as eventually all but two were smashed.

"Thanks for saving my life," Silva says to Robbins.

"As you can tell," he says to the camera, "you had the illusion of choice the whole time."

But Robbins knows what numbers people are most likely to pick, which is why Silva was hidden in a certain crate.

The experiments are intended to prompt viewers to question what is reality and what is perception, or if perception is reality. This is the sort of show that goes over well with people who enjoyed philosophy class.

Among Silva's goals is to make people say, "Wow!"

"I want to feel that all the time," he says.

And it is those moments, of the brain not noticing what later seems obvious, that the show illustrates.

In one example, a simple animation of ducks pops up on screen, and viewers are told to count them. It looks like a shooting gallery at an old-fashioned carnival stand. Then they reveal how, by moving the ducks' bills just a tad up their heads and shifting the eye position, they become bunnies. Though both were shown in the same animation, your brain only takes in one of the animals.

It's more than parlor tricks, though. "Brain Games" relies on how people relate to one another. A man-in-the-street segment has a comic, posing as a reporter, asking people's reactions to outrageous -- and false -- news items. People believe what the fake reporter says because he looks the part and has a cameraman recording them.

Silva, who had been an anchor on Current TV, is a pied piper of the possible.

"Who would have thought a TV anchor would become a performing philosopher in a term invented by Timothy Leary?" he asks.

Probably no one, but "Brain Games" is so different and so much fun, it is completely worth tuning into to have your brain tested.
Photo/Video credit: Discovery Channel